So Many Ways to Poke Fun at Medvedev

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Путведев, Медвутин: Putvedev, Medvutin (the tandem leaders Putin and Medvedev)

One thing I’ve missed in the post-Soviet period is the brilliant Russian political joke (анекдот). During the bad old days, there was nothing quite like the pleasure of a truly great joke: first the anticipation as the рассказчик (joke teller) savored the setup. Then the liberating burst of laughter at the unexpected and pungent punch line. And finally the lingering aftertaste of sweet subversion.

Under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, jokes were invented and made the rounds — increasingly by Internet rather than around the kitchen table — but for some reason, the punch seemed to go out of them. Until about a year ago, that is. Operation Successor has tickled the funny bone of the Russian collective consciousness, and the political joke is on the comeback trail.

The only problem for foreigners with this burst of народное творчество (folk creativity) is that we don’t always burst out laughing at the punch line. Sometimes we just don’t get the joke. To help non-Russian speakers, here is a primer in the new humor.

One set of jokes sends up the notion of a president — or presidents — for eternity. Пушкин — это наше всё, Церетели — это наше везде, а Путин — это наше навсегда (Pushkin is our everything, Tsereteli is our everywhere and Putin is our forever). To get the joke, you need to recognize the famous quote about Pushkin by 19th-century poet Apollon Grigoryev in the first part. The middle part needs no explanation for anyone who has spent more than a day in Moscow.

There are dozens of jokes about Putin and Medvedev alternating as president and prime minister until the end of time. For example, in 2023, Putin and Medvedev are suffering from hangovers one morning. Putin asks, А ты не помнишь, кто из нас сегодня президент, а кто премьер-министр? (Do you remember who is president today and who is prime minister?) Medvedev replies: Да какая разница? Ну, пусть я буду премьер (What’s the difference? Well, let’s say I’m prime minister). Putin: Тогда тебе за пивом бежать (Then you do the beer run).

RuNet is filled with bear jokes and puns. Local wags are delighted that Medvedev will be inaugurated president in the spring — медведь до мая в берлоге (the bear is in his den until May). In one joke, the Kremlin issued a list of forbidden things right after the elections, such as the candy Мишка косолапый (the pigeon-toed bear) and Winnie the Pooh, as не соответствующие генеральной линии партии и порочащие честь президента (not conforming to the party line and defaming the honor of the president). I liked a journalist’s pun about the elections: процесс “подмедведевания” итогов выборов (the process of Medvedizing the election results, based on word play with подведение итогов, or summing up the results).

Punsters are having fun with initials, pointing out that since Medvedev’s initials are ДАМ, toasts за дам (to women) are now to the new president. There are other puns about ДАМ and я дам (“I will give,” also used in the sexual sense of “I will put out.”) Another set of jokes points out that his combination of фамилия-имя-отчество (surname/first name/patronymic name) is МДА, which is the sound one mutters to something disconcerting (typographically rendered м-да). This is a bit like having a president whose initials are JEEZ.

And pundits are tripping over each other to come up with witty descriptions of the future power structure in the country: It is either тандемократия (tandemocracy) or димакратия (dimacracy). The head of state is called Путведев or Медвутин.

Even Medvedev’s height is fair game: Новый президент — наглядный результат действия Плана Путина в сфере нанотехнологий (The new president is a tangible result of realizing Putin’s Plan in the area of nanotechnology).

I hope Mr. Medvedev has a good sense of humor. As one blogger writes, Чем дальше, тем смешнее (It’s just going to get funnier).

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.